Nonprofits making changes, keeping track

Most U.S. nonprofits have been launching innovative programs or services, and regularly measuring the effectiveness of at least part of those innovations, although limited resources have kept nonprofits from introducing more innovations or measuring their performance, a new survey says.

Eighty-two percent of 417 organizations responding to a survey by the Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Listening Post Project introduced at least one innovative program or service over the past five years, while over two-thirds were not able in the last two years to adopt at least one innovation they had wanted.

Eighty-six percent of nonprofits said they had not adopted a proposed innovation because of a lack of funding, 74 percent said they were not able to take promising innovations to scale because of a lack of growth capital, 70 percent cited narrow government funding streams, and 69 percent cited a tendency among foundations to encourage but not sustain support for innovation.

Eighty-five percent of nonprofits responding to the survey measure the effectiveness of at least part of their programs and services at least once a year, and two-thirds measure effectiveness for at least half their programs or services.

And while 95 percent of nonprofits doing any kind of performance measurement use “output” metrics such as the number of clients they serve, nearly 70 percent also reported using “outcome” metrics that focus on ultimate effects.

Only minorities of nonprofits reported using the kinds of techniques that “assessment experts insist are needed to make such measures truly convincing, such as random assignment comparisons and social rate of return estimates,” the survey says.

The big barriers to greater use of performance metrics cited by nonprofits were a lack of staff time and expertise, and the cost of good evaluation.

To help overcome barriers to nonprofit innovation and performance measurement, 82 percent of survey respondents recommended better tools to measure qualitative impacts; 81 percent recommended measurement tools that consume less time; 79 percent recommended financial resources to support measurement and research functions; 67 percent recommended greater help from intermediary organizations in fashioning common evaluation tools; and 63 percent recommended training for personnel in how to use measurement tools.

Many nonprofits also urged the new White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to “reduce barriers to funding, including burdensome reporting requirements on federal programs, the lack of coordination among federal agencies and departments, the lack of long-term financial support, nad the lack of funds for program evaluation.”

Peter Goldberg, president and CEO of the Alliance for Children and Families, and chairman of the Listening Post Project Steering Committee, says in a statement that while “nonprofit managers have taken to heart the importance of being able to prove that their programs are effective,” they also “need technical and financial assistance in implementing evaluation efforts.”

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